Mitigation pays off for Cedar Heights

       The lines held.

From a Ridge Road vantage point, people identifying themselves as Cedar Heights residents watch the fire threaten their homes June 24. The neighborhood's evacuation order was lifted June 30.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Despite repeated attacks by the Waldo Canyon Fire starting June 23, the flames never quite reached any of the 213 houses in the Cedar Heights subdivision.
       A clear sign of victory was when the gated community's residents, who had been forced to evacuate quickly on the 23rd, were allowed to return home June 30.
       Local officials have since praised the neighborhood's many years of volunteer fire mitigation work - chiefly the removing and chipping of dead brush from open spaces near and around the houses, in conjunction with the City Fire Department - which as a result gave the Waldo Canyon blaze less “fuel” to work with.
       In a press conference this week, Mayor Steve Bach even termed Cedar Heights (which is bordered by National Forest, the Garden of the Gods and Manitou Springs) the “poster child” for the city's ongoing fire mitigation program.
       Dick Standaert, a Cedar Heights resident who has helped coordinate with City Fire, agreed this week that such efforts made a difference in the Waldo Canyon blaze; but he was quick to add that his neighborhood benefitted from an “absolutely heroic effort by the fire department and a heckuva lot of luck. We never got the high winds that drove the fire into Mountain Shadows [the subdivision to the east where 346 homes burned]. We're feeling extremely fortunate.”
       His community's collective sigh of relief could be shared with its neighboring municipality. “The Fire Department has said that if the fire had made it into Cedar Heights, it would have gone straight into Manitou,” Standaert commented.
       Andrew Notbohm is the Wildland Fuels Program coordinator for the Colorado Springs Fire Department. In that role, he seeks to establish working relationships with more than 60 mountain-area neighborhoods in the city that are along or near what's known as “the wildland urban interface.”
       “The number one thing is reducing the risk 50 feet around the home,” he said.
       The program is largely funded by a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
       The money is well spent, Standaert believes. “The amount spent on mitigation [by the city] is less than losing one house,” he said.
       Ironically, a wildland neighborhood slated to start getting attention under the program in 2014 is Mountain Shadows.

For most of June 24, all roads to Manitou Springs (including westbound Colorado Avenue, as shown) were blocked off based on concerns that the fire near Cedar Heights would advance into the city. All of Manitou was told to evacuate - an order that was rescinded later that day when the threat seemed less imminent.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Cedar Heights started its own mitigation efforts with hand tools about a decade ago. City Fire's partnership with the neighborhood goes back about five years, with the department bringing in heavy brush-removal equipment for the first time in 2009. A major goal has been lessening the dead undergrowth in a private, natural park of about 300 acres, named Solitude Park, at the upper end of Cedar Heights. As reported in a February 2009 article in the Westside Pioneer, “brush-clearing has occurred on about 100 park acres - plus nearly 50 acres of community property adjacent to homes and along an emergency escape route - leaving little to burn between the healthy evergreen trees and bushes that remain.”
       The Fire Department even had a crew chipping in Solitude Park with hand tools as recently as a month before the fire, Standaert said.
       But the fire was the true test. “We knew the mitigation we'd done would change the fire behavior, but until it actually happened and we could see it, holy cow,” Notbohm exclaimed. “The fire blackened right up to the mitigation area and ran out of fuel. So we were able to defend Cedar Heights.”
       But there was still an early bureaucratic glitch. The initial fire responders in Cedar Heights were unaware of the preparation work done there, including “lookout points, defensible areas and truck tracks,” Standaert said.
       Concerned, he gave up time from his own evacuation packing to make xerox copies of the mitigation info and get it to the commander on the Cedar Heights line. It also helped that Notbohm took the initiative to drive up there and share what he knew with the commander.
       In time, the Cedar Heights line grew to 150 firefighters, with various types of equipment. Their efforts were augmented by “numerous slurry drops” from the air, Standaert said.
       Nevertheless, in the days after June 23, watching with binoculars from a vantage point on South 21st Street, he admitted he had many doubts. “The flames were coming out of Williams Canyon, burning in the national forest,” he said. “They encroached on Cedar Heights numerous times, and every time the wind changed, I thought, 'OK, that's it.' ”

Westside Pioneer article